Overcast

The sunshine is way too loud, someone once said to me.

Bright-yellow days may be more popular, but I find them distracting, exhausting and blinding—especially on a day when I want to engage in some quiet concentration (which is almost every day). It is likely that my eyes are sensitive to the light, exhibiting a mild form of a condition known as photophobia. It is also the case that I am easily overwhelmed by all kinds of sensory input—noise, music, fragrance, pinching zippers, unwanted flavors, and of course too much light. In the absence of such stimuli I relax and find myself better able to focus. Sometimes, I am also not in the mood to leave the house. And when it’s overcast—or outright raining—it’s simply less of a travesty to stay home and bake things and make origami or edit photos* or watch a favorite crime drama.

A perfectly quiet photo in defense of grey skies, taken in Warsaw by Natalia Osiatynska on 2014/11/10 with the Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT fitted with the Canon L 200mm/f2.8 lens.

*Note that there is actually a very interesting vision-impairing phenomenon called simultaneous contrast, which works on the same basic principle that’s responsible for a slew of neat optical illusions, with colors affecting the perception of the hues and values of neighboring colors. It’s why graphic designers and photo retouchers often choose to work in pale gray environments—and why they often do their best work on pale grey days.

444?

Self-portrait without glasses, taken two weeks before the author’s 37th birthday with the Leica M 240.

Self-portrait with glasses, taken two weeks before the author’s 37th birthday with the Leica M 240.

Today was my thirty-seventh birthday, and what made it special was that it actually wasn’t (all that special, I guess), but that this was really okay.

And you know what else? I kind of hate odd numbers, and especially prime numbers. I like the sort of numbers you can arrange into clean grids of columns and rows—numbers with fours and eights in them, powers of two, that kind of thing. So naturally I just hated 37, not for being close to forty (because actually I have no problem with that at all) but for being such a graceless amount, made up of digits I dislike. Luckily it occurred to me to calculate the number of months in 37 years. It is, in fact 444 months. Imagine that! For my thirty-seventh birthday I got to celebrate turning four-hundred and forty-four!

The Leica M (Typ 240)

Since adding the X1 to my photographer’s kit in 2010, I’ve been enjoying the benefits that come with Leica ownership: free Lightroom software, members’ club opportunities and impeccable service. While great, ultimately these perks have also been expected, because one is used to steady excellence from any luxury goods producer with class. But last month I was stunned to receive an invitation to test drive the new Leica M (Typ 240) digital rangefinder, with instructions to contact my nearest Leica dealer about setting up a demo. Hours to shoot? Away from the store? Now that’s something I wasn’t expecting. A rare sense of privilege and delicious bewilderment accompanied all of my dealings with the personable staff at Warsaw’s Mysia location, and last Thursday I checked out a camera and two lenses worth more than a modest new car. And not for hours. For days. Specifically—until the Saturday two days later.

If you’re looking for a proper technical review, keep clicking because mine will be brief. (If even brief technical reviews bore you—skip ahead to the next paragraph.) The 680g magnesium alloy body felt heavy and I found it tough to turn for verticals, though this tells me nothing about how I’d respond to the weight and shape in some time. Despite its obvious digital attributes, the 240 felt and sounded very much like a precision instrument from an era before electronics. The analog viewfinder elicited both wonder and frustration, the latter especially in low light and low-contrast conditions. More than once, I missed the ability to fall back on autofocus. (Unfortunately, I didn’t learn about the potentially useful focus aid overlay function until after my demo.) The lenses I tested were the Elmarit 90/2.8 and the Summicron 35/2.0. Both amazed me, and they seemed to be the perfect pair if I were to settle for two. (Note that the Typ 240 is a rare digital camera equipped with a full-frame sensor, so the indicated focal lengths are classically true to size.) As nice as it was to deploy an actual focusing ring, remembering to adjust aperture on the lens posed the occasional challenge. In fact, I didn’t always remember to stop up or down in the first place: with so many features vying for my attention, my basic ability to compose shots was compromised. Fortunately, there was enough crossover with the X1 for the controls and menus to feel roughly familiar. And I was stunned by the RAW file size and its impact on my image processing workflow: with 24 megapixels and a colossal 48 megabytes, my Lightroom was as slow-loading as it had been with the 8 MP / 9 MB Canon files and the 12 MP / 18 MB X1 files on a previous computer running a relic of a system.

Many of my impressions had less to do with the camera’s capabilities and more with the insight I gained into the experience of taking part in this kind of product evaluation. Yes, I was a potential buyer, and yes, the demo was perhaps a plain attempt to sell me a camera. Yet something about it all felt entirely different from the usual sales-pitchy, predictable marketing. Between the phrasing of the invitation and the coolheaded enthusiasm of the Leica Store staff, this was a genuine, passion-driven, photography-centric adventure, devoid of any overt pressure to get me to buy anything. (It could of course be argued that so behaves the finest marketing of them all, but if so then I’d argue there’s still a reason not to be cynical about it.)

Now consider the contradictory nature of the assessment itself. After all, here was the best camera I’ve ever shot with, but it was in fact not at all likely to produce my best photos. Indeed, the incontrovertible joy I felt at this great opportunity was at odds with a real sense of performance anxiety. Because yes, I was testing the camera—but the camera was testing me right back.

With that, I think it’s time to let the pictures address both the camera’s potential and the capabilities of the photographer.

Above is a dozen of the seventy photos I deemed worthy of keeping (from among hundreds actually taken during my test drive). All images by Natalia Osiatynska, captured in RAW format in 2014 with the Leica M 240, on loan from Leica Store Warszawa, and subsequently processed in Lightroom as noted. Most images shown have been minimally corrected for tone and color—and many have been not-so-minimally cropped and adjusted for perspective. Note, however, the one I’m including “as shot,” with no editing of any kind at all: the bokeh-rich autumnal view through the lime trees up at the clear sky. And you know what? It might even be my favorite.

Getting fresh herbs to stay fresh

A rejuvenated sprig of fresh coriander can stay bright a for a week or more with proper handling. Photo taken in daylight with the Leica X1.

A rejuvenated sprig of fresh coriander can stay bright a for a week or more with proper handling. Photo taken in daylight with the Leica X1.

Some people can’t stand it when good food goes bad. Others mind the inconvenience more than the waste, with herbs meant for last night’s dinner turning out wilted beyond repair well before we get around to using them, say, three days after tomorrow. Luckily there’s a remedy. And no, it doesn’t entail placing your herbs, cut-flower-style, in a glass of water (where, cut-flower-style, their stems become slimy and odorous as you invariably fail to keep re-trimming them and changing the water). Rather, the key is to give your leafy things an abundance of the two (often mutually exclusive) things they can’t live without—moisture and air. 

The trick is to not only hydrate your herbs thoroughly and wrap them loosely in foil, but also to include an essential layer of absorbent material that will keep the plant itself moist but not actually wet. Once you get over the hassle of having to devote a little time to your cut aromatics right after bringing them home—you might find you love having them on hand, picked over and pre-washed and primed to last as long as possible.

Here’s what to do. Fill a clean sink (or large bowl) with plenty of cool water. Remove the string or elastic choking your bunch of herbs and discard any sprigs that are crushed, wilted or yellowed. Submerge the remainder and agitate gently to loosen any dirt. If the stems appear damaged, use a sharp knife to trim them under water. Now let your picked-over and freshly cut herbs enjoy a hydrating soak while you do something else for five or ten minutes. Next, lay out a tea towel and a layer of kitchen roll on a clean and dry surface. Re-gather the herbs into a loose bunch and shake them off gently as you lift them out of the water, so they’re still dewy but no longer dripping wet. Place them on the prepared towels and wrap snugly. Cover loosely with plastic (or place in an open sturdy plastic bag that you use for keeping all of your pre-washed leafy packages). Keep in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator—longer than you imagined possible.

It’s remarkable how well this method works for getting finicky cilantro, tarragon, chives or mint to remain fresh for at least a week (and to look more alive at your table than they did in the store days before). The more resilient parsley, sage and spring onion, in turn, can stay spry for half a month or more, especially if you repeat the washing process after a week or so. This method also works well for lettuces and foods like spinach. But it’s not great for basil, which is the fresh herb most susceptible to damage from the cold (and definitely the one to opt for in potted form unless you’re about to make pesto). On the other hand, the wash-and-wrap method is not necessary for hardy herbs like thyme and rosemary, which do just fine for many days without a boost of moisture. (It’s probably also a great way to keep dill in the fridge, though given how well chopped dill performs when it’s frozen, the freezer is actually where I choose to keep all my dill.)

Note: I am no botanist. I am, however, a pedantic epicure squeamish about decay. When it comes to keeping greens green, I’m pretty sure I know what I’m talking about.

A book to remember

 

Polish psychologist and acclaimed author Ewa Woydyłło has a new book out this month. Entitled Good Memory, Bad Memory, it is her ninth publication with Wydawnictwo Literackie and—in classic Woydyłło style—it is a gentle, thoughtful and decidedly optimistic take on the self-improvement genre. The cover motto is you are what you remember and each of the featured essays and interviews addresses the ways we can begin to affect our experience of our memories, and thus effect an ability to accept life and live fully. Skewing in favor of anecdotes and common sense over checklists and study results, the overarching message is not you should but you can. And that is a philosophy I share with the writer (along with a staggering amount of DNA, because, in addition to being a psychologist and author, Ewa Woydyłło is also my mom).

I’m pleased to report that I share another neat thing with the author—namely, a sense of authorship. At the behest of the writer and publisher, I shot the book’s cover image and selected from my archive the fourteen photographic illustrations used in the text. Thus, my mom’s new book is also my photographic debut—and our first official mother-daughter collaboration.

Though my images can be described as studied and sterile, in the context of the book’s theme they may encourage an interpretation that reflects back upon their family-album origins. (Maybe it matters that the little yellow vase in the cover shot is one I bought myself at a Danish thrift shop after my soon-to-be ex didn’t buy it for me; maybe it matters that the forget-me-nots in this little yellow vase are ones I picked together with my son in the woods near our home in Warsaw, though back when I first saw that vase in the shop window, I had my heart set on raising this child not in Warsaw but in Copenhagen. And maybe it matters that today both the vase and the flowers make me feel happy, not sad—though the memories they elicit are bittersweet.) In a recursive twist, each photograph illustrating this contemplative book on memory is itself a reinterpretation of a time or place or feeling I remember. And now each has also become a document of my mom’s gracious invitation to join her in creating what is bound to be a book I never forget.

If you’re in Warsaw next Tuesday with nothing to do—join us for the inaugural event at Empik Junior at six o’clock in the evening on September 23, 2014.

All images by Natalia Osiatynska, 2006–2014.